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Saltators- The Pseudo Cardinals of Costa Rica

Northern Cardinals don’t live in Costa Rica and maybe it’s better that way. I admit that I am biased by memories and early birding impressions of snowy backyards where the fancy, crested bird was accompanied by chirping House Sparrows. It was a bird of cold places with steel gray skies that thawed into floral scented Springs and warm temperate woodland Junes.

“Northern cardinal” by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Midwest Region is licensed under CC BY 2.0

In my mind, the Northern Cardinal belongs in brushy woodlands and places where Red-winged Blackbirds sing from reedy ditches and skeins of geese fly their way north. While the crested “Redbird” does play a role in many such situations, as strong as my first cardinal impressions may be, they only tell a small, subjective part of its story. Cardinals don’t just live in the annual frozen landscapes of the north. In southern Mexico, they also share ecological space with many tropical birds. Visit pyramids in the Yucatan and you might find yourself listening to a soundscape where a cardinal’s cheerful whistles are accompanied by the haunting calls of a Collared Forest-Falcon and the screeching of Brown Jays.

With that in mind, if a cardinal sang in some parts of Costa Rica, maybe it wouldn’t be all that out of place. It might even feel more at home upon hearing the warbled songs of Blue Grosbeaks; a common species in many parts of the Central Valley and northwestern Costa Rica. Most mornings, I hear one of those over-sized beautiful buntings warble its way into the start of a new day. Shortly after, other birds make themselves auditorily known and although there aren’t any “what-cheering” cardinals around, I do hear a bird that sort of takes its place. That species is the Grayish Saltator, a bird that, along with the other saltators of Costa Rica, is sort of like a pseudo-cardinal.

Saltators aren’t red and they don’t have crests but were nevertheless previously suspected to be cardinal relatives. Those suspicions were firmly put to rest when molecular studies revealed that they shared a more recent common ancestor with tanagers (and not the Cardinalid ones). Even so, they still remind me of cardinals because saltators are similar in size and shape, share some behaviors, and have a few vocalizations reminiscent of the whistled sounds that cardinals make. Several saltators occur in South America, these are the five saltator species that live in Costa Rica:

Grayish Saltator

A common bird of edge habitats in the Central Valley and elsewhere, around my place, this is the pseudo-cardinal. It has a variable, whistled rising song and frequents brushy habitats with the type of structure cardinals might. Watch for this bird in hotel gardens, especially in the Central Valley.

Buff-throated Saltator

Given the huge range of this species, its a contender for being one of the most successful of all Neotropical birds. In Costa Rica, since its more a bird of humid tropical habitats and forest edge, I rarely see one near my place. Once in a while, one or two show up in the riparian zone out back, maybe just moving through. Go birding in the humid foothills and lowlands and you will probably hear their somewhat thrush-like warbling song and see several.

Black-headed Saltator

Closer to a jay in size, this hefty bird would be a monster of a cardinal. Despite the large proportions, this is a rather shy species that somehow manages to skulk in dense second growth. Historically restricted to the Caribbean slope, likely because of deforestation and climate change, Black-headed Saltators now also occur in many parts of the Central Valley. They have a harsh, loud and choppy song.

Streaked Saltator

This primarily South American species reaches its northern distribution on the southern Pacific slope of Costa Rica. Like the Grayish Saltator, it mostly occurs in gardens and edge habitats and more or less replaces the Grayish. It’s especially common in the Valle del General. Listen for its distinctive slow whistled song and don’t be surprised if you also run into one or two in the Central Valley; a few occur here and there.

Slate-colored Grosbeak

Despite the name, this is actually a fancy saltator and cool canopy bird of lowland and foothill rainforest. In Costa Rica, it lives in such forests on the Caribbean slope (although one or two sometimes wander all the way across the mountains to Carara!). Unlike the other saltators, this bird sings over and over from up in the canopy and has an orange bill a lot like that of a cardinal. It also has a chip call that sounds more like a cardinal than anything but even so, it’s still a saltator. Listen for its frequently given song and watch for it at fruiting trees and with mixed flocks.

Will you see saltators when visiting Costa Rica? I would think so. All of them are fairly common, most visit fruit feeders, and they aren’t as shy and skulky as antbirds. As with so many other birds, one of the best ways to find them is by knowing their songs. Try learning the songs of saltators with the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app. When I study bird vocalizations, it’s a big help for me to listen to a bird while looking at its picture. Since this birding app for Costa Rica has images for 927 species and vocalizations for 863 species on the Costa Rica bird list, plus 68 additional birds that could eventually occur, there’s more than enough to listen to and look at!

While studying songs of Costa Rica birds, you might also want to mark your target birds. Start studying now because cool pseudo-cardinal saltators and hundreds of other birds are waiting to be seen in Costa Rica. I hope to see you here.